Watkins v. United States, 354 U.S. 178; 77 S. Ct. 1173; 1 L. Ed. 2d 1273 (1957)

Facts—John T. Watkins, a labor union organizer, appeared as a witness in compliance with a subpoena issued by a subcommittee of the Committee on Un-American Activities of the House of Representatives. Although Watkins indicated he would answer questions about his relations with the Communist Party and questions concerning his acquaintance with current members, he refused to answer those questions involving persons whom he believed had separated from the party on the ground that these were not relevant to the work of this committee. He was indicted and convicted for contempt of Congress under a statute making criminal refusal to answer “any questions pertinent to the question under inquiry.”

Question—May a witness at a congressional committee hearing properly refuse to answer questions on the basis of their lack of pertinency?

Decision—Yes.

Reasons—C.J. Warren (6–1). Although the power of Congress to conduct investigations is inherent in the legislative process and is a broad power, the inquiry “must be related to and in furtherance of a legitimate task of the Congress.” The Bill of Rights is applicable to investigations as to all forms of governmental actions, so the First Amendment freedoms of speech, press, religion, and political belief and association must not be abridged. Further, the First Amendment may be invoked against infringement of the protected freedoms by law or by lawmaking. There is a freedom not to speak. “Protected freedoms should not be placed in danger in the absence of a clear determination by the House or the Senate that a particular inquiry is justified by a specific legislative need.” This requires that the instructions to an investigating committee spell out that group’s jurisdiction and purpose with sufficient particularity. “There is no congressional power to expose for the sake of exposure.” In this instance, none of the several sources—the authorizing resolution, the remarks of the chairman, or the remarks of members of the committee—was adequate to convey sufficient information as to the pertinency of the questions. Watkins was thus “not accorded a fair opportunity to determine whether he was within his rights in refusing to answer, and his conviction is necessarily invalid under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.”

J. Clark argued in dissent that the requirements the Court was imposing on congressional investigations were both “unnecessary and unworkable.”

Note—Although there were some factual differences between the two cases, the Supreme Court arguably retreated from this opinion, which stirred strong sentiment against the Court, in Barenblatt v. United States.

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